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Coaching success in NBA guarantees nothing, ask Kevin McHale


Coaching success in NBA guarantees nothing, ask Kevin McHale

A few weeks ago, I received in my email odds of NBA coaches getting fired. Of course, Wizards coach Randy Wittman was in the top five. So was David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers, coming off leading his team to the Finals. Not present on the list was Kevin McHale of the Houston Rockets, who led them to the Western Conference finals for the first time in two decades last season.

McHale actually became the first coach fired in 2015 following a 4-7 start. Who would've thought McHale? His firing suggests there was more than an Xs and Os were in play. They're a team with a dynamic All-Star in James Harden and Dwight Howard. But they're playing in a fog, with no energy, no fire and no commitment to defense.

J.B. Bickerstaff, the son of former Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff (1997-98), takes over on an interim basis.

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"I think he's a great leader. I think he's been ready for this opportunity his whole life," Rockets GM Darryl Morey told reporters about Bickerstaff. "He has great mentors. I think the team responds to him. I think he has good plan to lead us out of where we are. I'm very confident in him."

Every year, the exercise of who'll be first fired takes place. Unfortunately, nothing makes people happier, particularly on social media, than proclaiming someone should be out of a job because of a bad stretch of games or just because they're perceived to have "lost the locker room." 

Exactly what does that mean? No one has ever successfully explained that sports cliche yet without tripping over themselves.

I get it. This comes with the job. But if you want to look like the smartest guy in the room about who is next, I'm making this pre-emptive strike just to head off all the inevitable questions about Wittman's job security: He's not getting fired because of a few bumps in the road in the final fully guaranteed year of his deal.

The Wizards started shaky with three bad blowout losses, but they're back over .500 after Tuesday's 115-86 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Unlike, Byron Scott (Lakers), George Karl (Kings) and Lionel Hollins (Nets), all predicted to be on the early chopping block, the Wizards are coming off consecutive conference semifinals appearances. That might not mean much in Houston, but it does here. The latter run for Washington might've been the conference finals had it not been for a broken hand/wrist for John Wall.

Wittman has done something that Scott and Hollins haven't. He has evolved with an offense that's more free-flowing and is emphasizing pace and space. Some will say it came a bit late as his previous schemes were unimaginative. To be fair, he also didn't have Jared Dudley and Gary Neal on the roster and Kris Humphries hadn't developed a three-point shot. Humphries was shooting threes after practice in training camp last year -- and I talked to him about it here -- so that light bulb didn't just come on.

By contrast, some of Wittman's long ball options before these acquisitions were Shelvin Mack (32.9% career), Chris Singleton (31.9%),  A.J. Price (31.6%), Trevor Booker (31%), Jordan Crawford (30.6%) and Jan Vesely (0%). 

The Wizards went into the 2013-14 season with a "playoffs-or-else" edict from owner Ted Leonsis, so that's not exactly the time to start developing Booker in that regard who has since shown he might be able to become a decent shooter from range with the Utah Jazz.

Unlike Karl's dilemma with his star player DeMarcus Cousins, Wittman doesn't have a combative relationship with Wall, his star pupil, or Bradley Beal, his rising star pupil. 

Wittman will make $3 million. There's a partial guarantee for 2016-17 and how the Wizards perform this season will go a long way to determining what move the franchise makes or doesn't make. Creating instability with the coaching staff would be irresponsible unless you're giving up on the season.

Still, the rumors will persist that Wittman might get fired. Well, if you're reading this, you might get fired before the season is over. If my boss understandably gets fed up with me, I might get fired, too. It's all guesswork or wishful thinking disguised as reporting.

But never let that get in the way of conjecture. It's just important to know the difference. When the Wizards lost in consecutive games to two of the worst teams in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers, the "fire Wittman" speculation was ablaze. And as I reported at the time, there was no chance Wittman was going anywhere. Just like he wasn't going anywhere after a 2-7 start of the 2013-14 season.

The assumption is that firing someone will make a situation better, which is no guarantee, or that all situations are created equal. The Rockets are in panic mode because they believe their window on winning a championship is closing. In Washington, that window is believed to be expanding pending free-agent moves in the summer of 2016.

The Denver Nuggets unloaded Karl in 2013, after his fourth consecutive first-round playoff exit despite 57 wins and an NBA coach of the year award, hired Brian Shaw to replace them. That produced 36 and 30 wins two seasons later.

The Kings gave Mike Malone the ax after an 11-13 start, minus his franchise player Cousins who was hurt, and brought in Karl at the end of last season. He's now 15-26 overall going into tonight's game.

McHale won 56 games a year ago. He was 193-130 in five seasons in Houston, a 60% success rate which is the highest in franchise history. He didn't seem to have a problem motivating the Rockets to come from a 3-1 deficit in the West semifinals to win that series with the Los Angeles Clippers. Suddenly, however, the magic is gone. 

Firing the coach guarantees nothing. And because the interim coach doesn't succeed it doesn't mean that person failed at the job, especially if the real problem rests with the 15-man roster.

For the Wizards, it's about the big picture. They're going through a transformation with the way they play and Wittman will get a chance to see it through. 

MORE WIZARDS: Breaking down Wizards' defensive excellence in win vs. Bucks 

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Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. show how they can change everything for Wizards in win over Blazers

Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. show how they can change everything for Wizards in win over Blazers

Most nights, with little variance, the Wizards know what they are going to get from John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. They are consistently what they are, both good and bad, and mostly good.

The same cannot always be said about Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. Both are capable of brilliance, it's just those moments come and go and sometimes with mysterious timing. Both players help the team more often than not, but can be unpredictable and enigmatic.

Monday night saw both Morris and Oubre at their best as the Wizards topped the Blazers 125-124 in overtime at the Moda Center. It was a worthy reminder of how much the two of them can change the outlook for the Wizards as a team on any given night.

Let's begin with Morris because this may have been the best game he's played with the Wizards since joining them in a Feb. 2016 trade. On both ends of the floor, he  was a force, but particularly on offense.

Morris erupted for 28 points in 25 minutes on 9-for-15 from the field and 6-for-10 from three. His six threes were a career-high. He also had 10 rebounds, a block and a steal.

It was the most efficient night in Morris' career and, by one measure, one of the most efficient in franchise history. His 28 points were the most by a Wizards or Bullets player in 25 minutes or less since A.J. English dropped 30 points in 23 minutes in 1990.

Morris' threes were well-timed. He hit two in the extra period, including one with 38.5 seconds remaining to put the Wizards up four. He also made one with 1:04 left in regulation and another right before that with 1:39 to go, both to give the Wizards a lead at the time. 

The clutch threes invoked memories of a game-winner Morris hit in the very same building two seasons ago. That also happened to be his best year with the Wizards.

Morris has improved his three-point shooting in recent years with a career-best 36.7 percent last season. When he's knocking them down, the Wizards can be uniquely good at spacing the floor, as Wall and especially Beal and Porter can be dangerous from three.

What Morris did against Portland was a major departure from a pair of uninspired games to begin the season. He had 21 points and 12 rebounds total in his first two games, both losses, as he failed to compensate for Dwight Howard's absence. On Monday, he stepped up and helped lead the Wizards to victory.

Like Morris, Oubre had been scuffling through two games. A different version of him showed up in Portland.

Oubre amassed only 17 points in his first two games and shot just 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 from three. Against the Blazers, Oubre scored 22 points and shot 9-for-13 overall and 3-for-3 from long range.

Oubre added six rebounds, a block and a steal and a host of winning plays that didn't show up in traditional stats. He drew a loose ball foul on Mo Harkless early in the fourth quarter and took a charge on C.J. McCollum with under two minutes in overtime.

Oubre played pretty much exactly how head coach Scott Brooks often says he should. He ran the floor in transition and attacked the rim when the ball swung his way. He was more selective with his three-point attempts than usual. He wreaked havoc on defense with deflections, didn't gamble for steals and he hustled for rebounds. 

Monday night showed the perfect version of both Morris and Oubre. The Wizards need that to be the model for how they aspire to play every single night. If they do, this team's ceiling is significantly higher.



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10 must-see moments from Wizards' wild OT win over Blazers, including John Wall's Jordan shrug

10 must-see moments from Wizards' wild OT win over Blazers, including John Wall's Jordan shrug

The Washington Wizards beat the Portland Trail Blazers 125-124 in overtime on Monday night. Here are five plays or moments worth revisiting...

1. We will get to the game, and we will get to many things done by the Wizards, but we begin with a moment from pregame. Apparently, it was Halloween costume night for the Blazers and Moe Harkless stole the show by dressing up as Tyrone Biggums from Chappelle's Show:

Adam Silver, if you're reading this, please institute a rule requiring every team to do a Halloween costume arrivals night. You owe us this.

2. Okay, now for the game. Kelly Oubre Jr. was one of the stars of the night with 22 points, six rebounds, a block and a steal.

Here is one of his first buckets, a shot off the glass that was not an easy one to get to go down:

3. In the first half, Bradley Beal picked up right where he left off last time he was in Portland when he dropped a career-high 51 points. He had 19 of his 25 total points in the first half, including this baseline drive after a nasty crossover:

4. Markieff Morris also had himself a night. He popped off for 28 points in 25 minutes on 9-for-15 from the field and a career-high six threes. This was an athletic move around the rim you don't often see from Morris:

Was that some jelly from Keef? Not bad.

5. John Wall had a relatively quiet night for his standards with 16 points on 5-for-16 from the field with nine assists. Here was his best play, one of his signature chasedown blocks:

6. Back to Oubre. He was feeling it and even got Steve Buckhantz to drop a 'Tsunami Papi' reference on the broadcast:

For Buckhantz, as Oubre would say, "the wave is free."

7. Beal went cold in the third quarter, missing his first seven shots of the second half. But he got his groove back when the Wizards needed it most.

This three answered a go-ahead shot by Nik Stauskas and forced overtime:

Beal was super pumped:

8. Two of Morris' six threes came in overtime, including this one to help seal the victory. Morris knocked one down with only 38.5 seconds left and it put the Wizards up by four:

9. Wall helped put the Blazers down for good with a bank shot from the elbow. Some might say it was lucky, while others would say he called game:

Wall even had to hit the Blazers with a Jordan shrug. Portland has seen that before.

10. The Blazers had a chance in the final seconds, but Otto Porter Jr. put the finishing touches on the win with this block on Damian Lillard's buzzer-beater attempt. Though Porter didn't have huge numbers - he scored 16 points - his fingerprints were all over this win:

What an incredible game. We can all agree the Wizards and Blazers should play more often. Well, maybe not the Blazers. The Wizards have had a lot of fun at their expense in recent years.